In this last week of NBC News Education Nation’s back-to-school campaign “Goal to Be Greater,” I wanted to reflect on not just what we as adults have pledged, but what the youth we’re involved with can do and will do to make a positive difference in our communities.
In truth, just participating in the Goal to be Greater effort helps – by raising money for charity. A dollar is donated by Education Nation for each submission and then matched by Pearson Education, a partner in the campaign. They believe that this effort, involving adults and youth, teaches important lessons about caring for others and becoming civically engaged.
In its challenge, the campaign asks, “How will you make a difference?”
The answers to that question include everything from feeding those less fortunate to helping veterans and, well, pretty much everything in between.
For our part, the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) offered a goal of helping young people navigate the choppy waters of change, especially the transition from high school to college, by empowering them to experience hopeful outcomes related to positive identity formation, character development, healthy risk-taking, spirituality, leadership, civic engagement and social entrepreneurship.
Two of those young people, 17-year-olds Joe Benjamin and Aggie Chamlin, long ago chose to make a difference by mentoring youth. It’s their goal to be greater.
Significantly, such mentoring has been linked to educational gains, cognitive development, enhanced health and safety, social and emotional well-being and self-sufficiency. It has also been shown to result in improved relationships with parents and peers, resiliency, reduction of alcohol and other drug use and decreased violence.
But what does all of this look like for the mentor and the mentee? Here’s what Joe has to say.
“Almost every Saturday morning I tutor young boys and girls at the East Harlem School (EHS) in Manhattan. EHS is a charter school for students in grades 4-8 that aims to give quality education to children from low-income families.
“I started volunteering at EHS as a sophomore in high school and plan to continue throughout the remainder of my senior year. Because I have worked with some of the same kids for the last couple of years, I have had the pleasure of watching them grow and have been fortunate to form meaningful relationships with them. It has been great for me to not only see them moving up in grade level, but thriving as well. This is what keeps me motivated to stay there.
“The positive attitude of the students has always amazed me. These are kids who are giving up a large portion of their Saturdays to do homework so that they can do better in school. Yet, they always come in with huge smiles on their faces and ready to work.
“That attitude drives me to want to help them succeed.
“For example, I remember working with one sixth-grade boy many times during the winter and spring of 2016. He came in every week with the same positive attitude, and we were always able to get a lot accomplished. He would often finish his assignments for the whole weekend. His upbeat approach to being tutored always left me with a good feeling.
“It is nice to know I helped a student. I remember sometimes feeling lost if a concept went over my head in class and not being able to ask my parents for help. It feels great to be able to be that person kids can turn to as they strengthen their academics.
“Sometimes, if a student finishes homework early, we have time to play games together: checkers, chess, mancala or Monopoly (though even trying to play Monopoly in 10-15 minutes is fruitless). I have learned over the years that I cannot take it easy in these games. I distinctly remember tutoring a fifth-grade girl and then having her destroy me in checkers. In fact, just last week a seventh grader beat me at chess three times in a row!
“These experiences keep me in check and shift some of the power dynamic back toward the students, which can be a good thing for their confidence.
“I have greatly valued my work at EHS and hope that the kids have learned as much from me as I have from them.”
Of her volunteerism with an organization that helps children with physical and mental challenges play baseball, Aggie offers additional perspective.
“Working with special-needs children has been my normal for the last nine years. My parents didn’t lead me to the Miracle League; I fought to go there when I was in elementary school after hearing a man in a wheelchair speak about the organization at an assembly.
“This kind of work, for me, is genuinely fun.
“I was 10 years old and only 65 pounds when I started to volunteer, working one-on-one with a 16-year-old boy in a wheelchair. It was kind of a weird power flip, where my weight and small size put me at a distinct disadvantage. But, I never wavered or doubted myself.
“Sometimes the kids I coach get stuck on base. This is particularly true when children have a diagnosis of autism. Extraneous noises, even something as simple as a bat dropping, tend to pause the game. I have to devise creative ways to encourage my players to run to base. Unfortunately, I cannot use the tools that most coaches rely on, like yelling out directions or names. More noise just adds to the chaos. So, I hold up a giant, colorful sign that says, ‘Go to second base.’
“In opening myself up to people who communicate differently than I do, I’ve become conversant in other languages that aren’t always spoken. I can pick up on nuance. The other day, Antonio, who’s eight and non-verbal, grabbed a Chinese takeout menu from a nurses’ station and brought it to me. He was pointing at a picture of General Tso’s chicken and fried rice. Quickly, I understood that the menu was his way of telling me what he’d had for dinner the previous night. When I asked him, ‘Was that your dinner?’ he nodded vigorously. I was thrilled to be able to decipher his message without his ever saying a word.
“The knowledge I’ve gained outside my own immediate experience has transformed me. And that’s really only the beginning of all I’ve come to understand. After nine years, I still have so much to learn. But through the Miracle League, I’ve discovered I’m not only an avid student, but I’m also a good reader – of people.”
Two youth mentoring youth … with goals to be greater.
Stephen Gray Wallace is president and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE), a national collaborative of institutions and organizations committed to increasing positive youth outcomes and reducing negative risk behaviors. He has broad experience as a school psychologist, adolescent/family counselor and college professor. He currently serves as director of counseling and counselor training at Cape Cod Sea Camps, a member of the professional development faculty at the American Academy of Family Physicians and the American Camp Association and a parenting expert at kidsinthehouse.com and NBCUniversal’s parenttoolkit.com. He is also an expert partner at RANE (Risk Assistance Network & Exchange). For additional information about Stephen’s work, please visit StephenGrayWallace.com.
Joe Benjamin is a senior at the Fieldston School in New York City, a varsity lacrosse and soccer player, and a writer for the Fieldston Sports Digest. He also plays first trombone in his school’s jazz ensemble.
Aggie Chamlin is a senior at Scarsdale High School in Scarsdale, New York, and a lacrosse player. She is a volunteer at the Miracle League of Westchester and president and founder of the Scarsdale High School Miracle League of Westchester Club.
Both Joe and Aggie are 2016 graduates of the teen leadership program at Cape Cod Sea Camps in Brewster, Massachusetts.
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